Monday, June 28, 2010

JLit Book Group Discussion: 'Silence' by Shusaku Endo

Welcome to the Japanese Literature Book Group discussion of Silence by Shusaku Endo.

About the author

Shusaku Endo"Shusaku Endo (遠藤 周作) was born in Tokyo in 1923, but his parents moved shortly after to live in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. When his parents divorced in 1933, Endo returned to Japan with his mother to live in her hometown of Kobe. His mother converted to Catholicism when he was a small child and raised the young Endo as a Catholic. Endo was baptized in 1935 at the age of 12 and given the Christian name of Paul.

Endo studied French literature at the University of Lyon from 1950 to 1953. His books reflect many of his childhood experiences. These include the stigma of being an outsider, the experience of being a foreigner, the life of a hospital patient, and the struggle with tuberculosis. However, his books mainly deal with the moral fabric of life. His Catholic faith can be seen at some level in all of his books, and it is often a central feature. Most of his characters struggle with complex moral dilemmas, and their choices often produce mixed or tragic results."

*Information courtesy of Wikipedia. For more, visit Wikipedia's Shusaku Endo page.
**Author image: found here, source unknown

About the book

Winner of the Tanizaki Prize in 1966.
Silence (沈黙, chinmoku), is the story of a Jesuit missionary who secretly enters Japan in the seventeenth century during the persecution of Kakure Kirishitan ("Hidden Christians"). "Written partly in the form of a letter by its central character, the theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity was greatly influenced by the Catholic Endo's experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France and debilitating tuberculosis."
Translated into English by William Johnston.

*Information courtesy of Wikipedia. For more visit Wikipedia's Silence page.

Discussion Questions

The questions below are simply a guide to get the discussion going. Feel free to pick and choose, and answer those ones that interest you. Plus if you have any other questions or thoughts on the book, please don't hesitate to bring them up. For anyone who hasn't yet read the book, please be warned that the questions and comments may contain spoilers, so please proceed at your own risk!

The following five questions were taken from the IAM Readers Guild Discussion Guide:

Silence by Shusaku EndoWhat were your initial impressions of the story and the style of writing?
Which characters did you like or dislike? Which characters did you identify with? Has your impression of the book evolved since you finished reading it?

What function does Kichijiro (the traitor) serve in the novel? Do you know anyone like his character? Have you ever felt like him?

In some ways, Silence is a book about West meeting East. How do those two cultures interact in the book? How do you feel about the interaction?

Rodrigues's character is based on a real person - Giuseppe Chiara, a
missionary who secretly entered Japan with nine others in 1643. What, in the
end, does Rodrigues's apostasy mean for the people to whom he ministered?
How closely does it match your idea of apostasy? How do you think you would
have acted if you were in Rodrigues's shoes?

Why is the book called "Silence"? Who is silent? What significance does that
silence have? Discuss some of the meanings of the word "silence" in the book.

The following questions come from the BookRags Study Guide:

Silence by Shusaku EndoHow does the Japanese persecution of Christians compare to other religious persecution in different countries?

Endo's book is considered a novel. What impact does this classification have on the significance of the story?

In Chapter Five, Monica, one of the peasant captives, says that they do not fear death because they would welcome the paradise of Heaven. Rodrigues is upset with her description of Heaven. Why do you think he reacts this way?

And a few more from me for good measure:

In the book, Japan is often referred to as a "bottomless swamp" where Christianity simply rots and dies. Ferreira says of the Japanese Christians: "The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will." (p. 149) He goes on to say, "The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human." (p. 150) Do you agree that because of this the Japanese are not true Christians? Is it possible to believe in a different version of God and still be Christian?

Rodrigues is repeatedly urged to step on the fumie, simply as a formality. So why does Rogrigues refuse? Can an act of apostasy truly be feigned?

Silence by Shusaku EndoNow having read the book, are you interested in seeing the new movie adaptation by Martin Scorsese when it comes out next year, I believe? Apparently Daniel Day-Lewis, and Benicio Del Toro have already signed on to be in the movie. Do they fit your image of the characters in the book? Who would you cast in the movie?

What did you think of the translation? Did it read smoothly?

Have you read anything else by Endo? Do you want to?

[Your question here]

I don't think I need to say this, but please be respectful of everyone's opinions. As this book deals primarily with Christianity and faith, and is impossible to discuss fully without referring to religion, please remember that while me may not share the same beliefs, it's through discussion that we can learn from each other. Any outright, disrespectful comments will be deleted.

Silence reviewed by:
Dolce Bellezza
Rebecca Reads
Polishing Mud Balls
My Friend Amy
Rob Around Books
The Reading Life
If you've also reviewed Silence, let me know and I'll link to it here.

Let the discussion begin!

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. This is such a powerful book to me, and I'm still thinking over its main theme: apostasy. I feel that Endo wants to say it's okay to deny Christ, even if one is doing it "just verbally" and not in one's heart.

    However, I think that's an easy solution to getting out of being in trouble by the political authorities. I've searched the Bible, which I read every year, and no where can I find a verse even vaguely indicating the viability of apostasy.

    Now, should I be held at gunpoint by a Muslim, or held over a pit til the blood dropped from the incisions over my ears, would I have the courage to not deny my Lord?

    I pray I would.

    (Also, the other work of Endo's which I have read is Wonderful Fool. He very clearly is a Christ figure, and one I won't forget, although again, I wouldn't call Jesus a fool.)

  2. Bellezza - It's an interesting dilemma... is the action more important than what is in one's heart? If we take religion and faith out of it, would we deny a family member, or loved one, if it meant it would save them? Is it any different?

    I think the interpreter encouraging him to just go through the formality of stepping on the sacred image is perhaps a cultural thing too, relating to the Asian/Japanese idea of 'face'. Even now Japanese are expected to conform to certain societal expectations, and to behave in certain ways. Whether you agree with them or not doesn't matter. What you personally think doesn't really matter, but how you act, on the outside, does. The same thing? Or completely unrelated?

    I remember you writing about Wonderful Fool. This was my first experience to read Endo but I'm curious to try something else.

  3. At the beginning of my reading, I was lost! The truth is that I had difficulty to remember who is who. However, once the Father Rodrigues and his companions arrived to Japan, the rhythm of the events speed up and I had been hooked since!

    The further I read, the more I admire Endo. I realize how Endo is a remarkable writer! He well depicted the internal struggle of Father Rodrigues who endured moral and spiritual tortures, maybe more horrible than the physical one. Additionally, Endo choses profound topics for his book. I'm a believer in God but not Christian, the book made me ask questions of the like: How do I know whether my faith is strong? Is God really silent? What does legitimate missionary work in foreign lands?...

    After reading the book, I conclude that faith comes from the heart. One can be forced to stop practicing her/his religion, but no one can change by force what she/he believes deep in her/his heart.

    One of my favorite quote from the book:

    "What matter about all this. It is not they who judge my heart but only Our Lord."

    (@Bellezza, we, Muslims, don't walk with guns lool. No one in my family or among my Muslim friends and acquaintance has or ever used a gun :p !)

  4. Another very tough question is in regards to the "bottomless swamp". Was this in relation to Japan having a deep history in other beliefs. I am little hazy on this, do not have the book. What I think you are refering to are with the beliefs that were ingrained in the culture (are they still, thinking that is a distinct possibility) and that the people have a hard time setting aside their deeply rooted beliefs that are not in line with Christianity. If this is what you are refering to, then no, I do not think it is possible to believe in a different God and yet still be Christian. That may sound harsh, but if you look at the faith, it demands love, respect, and belief in ONE God. In doing so (believing in another version of God), you are breaking the 1st commandment of "You shall have no other gods before me."

    "What, in the end, does Rodrigues's apostasy mean for the people to whom he ministered?"

    Again, another reason why answers, while linear, do not always match with life, this is why things can become so muddled.
    The belief is, if a person truly repents for their actions, Christ will always forgive them, and He does not cast those from his flock. In regard to Rodriques actions...
    I think the man felt shame, and repented. I think he was broken down when he denyed Christ. He repented, his actions speak for this. In his way, he did minister to others, and he did lead others to Christ through repenting, and future actions. What is truly horrible about this case, Rodrigues lives a life of physical imprisonment. Emotionally, I think he gained some sense of freedom. Hope I am recalling the story accurately, but that is the impression I was left with.
    Light bulb moment... what I have just mentioned above is a great example of how a person acts a why society demands yet does not believe what society demands. Tricky, tricky... wow! When faced with persecution...emotional, as others want or maintain what you believe in with your actions??? What a quandry, and not a simple answer at all....a linear answer yet it is not. I so pray to God that I will never be faced with such a horrific dilemma, but you know, we are faced with this question...dilemma...almost daily but on a much smaller scale, and without fear of physical harm/death (at least in my part of the world).

    As you can see by how my mind is trying to work out these huge questions.. Silence is a prfound book.

    I have not read any other works by Endo but would truly like to do so. I had Wonderful Fool in my hands but was unable to get to the read before it was due back at the library.

  5. Silence is a powerful book, that provoked so much thought and questions within me. I found this book to be truly profound that even several months after the read, I am only scratching the surface of how I feel with the message Endo wove within this story.

    Apostasy is a huge deal, and no, I do not think it can be truly feigned. What I mean, is in your heart you may not believe that you are denying Christ but the action of doing so will effect your soul. This part of the book, the constant urging to step on the fumie impacted me greatly because I have never been put into that position, and would hope and pray that I could refuse as well, but honsestly do not know if I would have the physical ability - bodily and mental stability to endure the fear that comes along with refusing.

    tanabata - you asked in the comments...
    "is the action more important than what is in one's heart?"
    Tought question because the answer becomes linear and situations are never truly linear. My answer is that actions tend to reflect what is in one's heart even if what is in the heart only resides there for a nanosecond. So the bottom line is that I believe that you cannot truly seperate actions from what is in one's heart therefore not anymore important.

    "What you personally think doesn't really matter, but how you act, on the outside, does. The same thing? Or completely unrelated?"

    See now, I am not certain how you can truly seperate these two.
    If you are acting on the outside then you are fake, not being honest with those for whom you are interacting with.
    Yet, just because you want to smash my face in and truly believe that to be the best course of action...well, I would much prefer you be fake in that situation, and bow to societal expectations.
    See...situations in life are not linear.
    If you are talking about actions differing from ones belief where the belief is not going to do bodily and emotional harm to another then no...I do not think a person should only act a certain why because society dictates that you must ignore your beliefs. Shrug. A deep question you asked here with not a real clear cut,and easy answer.
    This issue is not unrelated.

  6. dreams, I'm sorry how my Muslim comment came out. I did not mean to imply that all Muslims carry guns. I meant if I was faced to deny my faith by any terrorist of any nationality, what would I do? I would never mean at offend any one, I hope you understand.

    Tanabata, I'm interested in what you said about how the culture in Japan expects people to conform whether you agree or not. I used to say that was a horrible way to have to live; now I'm not so sure. I think America has lost so much of its morality, its values, because we say anything goes. Somewhere, perhaps, a line should be drawn. Yet, who has the right to tell anyone what to believe? I don't think I have that right...I surely wouldn't want someone 'inflicting' a belief system on me. Is it possible to say, "Everyone believe what they want" and still hold on to one's culture? Is it fair to ask someone to act one way yet believe another? Instead of finding answers, I'm finding more questions. ;)

  7. Wow, so many great questions!

    I think SILENCE indicates firstly the silence that Rodrigues thought God withheld. My favorite question you ask above is about Kichijiro, the traitor. I think everyone has a little bit of that in them. Even Rodrigues did in the end. It's really hard to never think of yourself. And, on a personal (religious!) note, I think only one person that ever lived was able to never make a mistake: that was Jesus Christ. Part of the point of this book is, I think, that even Jesus Christ had to experience silence from the heavens ("Oh God, Why Hast Thou forsaken me?"). The difference is that He was able to bear it perfectly because of his divine nature.

  8. I was emailing about this book with a friend. (I didn't write a review, by the way, just posted a couple of passages that struck me.) Anyway, my friend said he didn't think the book so much as about the question whether Christianity being or not being a suitable religion for Japan, but more about the relationship between religion and socio-political power. I think this is somehow true. Inoue is a very important figure in the novel, despite his limited appearance. The power he wielded, "killing the roots," leading to allow the Christian God to eventually distort into a different God for the Japanese, ultimately making the missionaries' labor amount to nothing. Did he succeed in killing all the roots? Surely not, as there were people in Japan, like Endo himself, who grew up Catholics. But again, surely, he killed "most" of the roots, leaving only a few tendrils behind.

    I loved the title of this book. The "silence" of God being the whole point of struggle for Rodrigues (and Ferreira, too). Had any one prayer been answered, would they have had the heart to endure more torture?

  9. @Bellezza No problem :), maybe writing "Muslim terrorists" would keep away the confusion.

    I have few questions regarding the book. I would appreciate if it is possible for you to help me to understand more.

    The book has several excerpts in Latin (I think), not all are translated. So, I was wondering, whether they are well-known for any Christian? Are they prayers, excerpt from the bible? And, what "Laudate Eum" means?

    Furthermore, at the end of the book there is an expression that I think it is a kind of question in Hebrew "Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabacthani!" Does it refer to particular context?


  10. I read this book about 10 years ago and learned the difference between Christianity and Buddhism. Most Japanese do not understand the spirit of Christianity, and I think Endo wanted to tell us how difficult it is to make the Japanese understand Christianity. The Japanese religious mind is very unique - they don't have a certain special god as Christianity does, but most people belive in Buddha but there is also Shinto. A wedding or a celebration, the Japanese use Shinto but when someone dies or something bad happens, they follow the Buddhist way. It's hard to explain from a Japanese point of view.



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